The defender of property; Ally: Edward Primoff has become a big political player in Carroll County as an unlikely champion of farmers' rights to develop their land.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In once-rural Carroll County, where growth is a tug of war between those fighting to develop farmland and those battling to preserve it, few people have pulled as hard or as readily for the interests of farmers as Edward Primoff.

In 1996, he got out of his hospital bed, where he was recovering from major surgery, to demand that a farmer be put on the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission. He showed up at the public hearing with an intravenous needle still in his arm. A farmer was put on the planning commission.

In 1997, when the agriculture community worried that a federally funded workshop on the future of South Carroll County would compromise property rights, Primoff created such a stir that the workshop was delayed and modified to accommodate his concerns.

And in August, when the Rash brothers asked the county to rezone their family farm so they could develop a 50-home golf course community, Primoff was there, too, making phone calls and drumming up support. The landmark case -- which opponents say will lead to unbridled development in South Carroll -- was approved.

But for all his support of farmers, Primoff is not one.

As founder and president of the Carroll County Landowners Association, Primoff says his main interest is protecting the rights of property owners -- large and small.

It's no matter that his uncalloused hands spend more time wrapped around a cell phone than a pitchfork. "When I saw injustices against them, I had to act," says Primoff, a successful commercial lender who lives on a 200-acre estate in South Carroll. "It's not a cause I chose; it chose me."

Since Primoff started the property rights group five years ago, it has grown into one of the most influential lobbying forces in the county with a membership, Primoff says, of 1,800 families.

An unlikely turn

It's an unlikely turn of events for someone who says he reads as slowly as a fourth-grader, is labeled pro-growth but fled development in Howard County, and was told he wouldn't live past 40.

"I think you could use him to write a textbook on building effective coalitions. Over a couple of years, he put together a powerful political body. He became a real player in Carroll County. I think he has really been able to rally a cause and hold people together," said Thomas G. Hiltz, former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission.

"He is perhaps the strongest player behind Carroll County politics."

Meet Primoff, and it is no surprise that he has attracted followers. A squat man with a cigar often clenched between his teeth, Primoff, 56, promotes his ideas with the intensity of a preacher on a Sunday morning.

His thoughts on growth, land preservation and property rights are so rich with anecdotes and parables that he is capable of capturing the attention of the most uninterested audience.

Asked about Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Smart Growth plan, Primoff draws a parallel to an experiment crowding rats in a box.

"If you put one or two rats in a box, they are fine. If you put three rats in the same box with more than enough food, they don't get along that well. Four, they get along less well. Five or six, they start fighting," he said. "Animal rights activists will say that's cruelty to animals. The governor calls it Smart Growth."

It was Primoff's charisma that captured the imagination of farmers five years ago, when he held the first meeting of the landowners association in his living room. At the time, many farmers felt threatened by slow-growth activists and county government, two groups they believed would take away their ability to develop their property.

Deprived of retirement

To Primoff, the land that provides farmers with a living is depriving them of retirement.

Farmers complain that a number of factors work against them: Stringent environmental controls and spiraling impact and development-review fees make farmland less attractive to developers.

A 1978 zoning law change reduced the number of lots that could be developed in agricultural areas, from one an acre to one for every 20 acres. Farmers have little choice but to continue working -- even if the farms are barely profitable, Primoff said.

"What are we going to do with land when it is no longer viable?" asked Primoff. "Farming is a business. If you can't make money, you can't continue."

His group backed a bill in the General Assembly that would have allowed Carroll County farmers to develop up to four homes on their land, regardless of the effect on schools, roads, or water and sewer systems. The governor vetoed the bill.

"Ed is one of the few people who defended us," said Flo Breitenother, a Woodbine farmer who was one of the first members of the landowners group.

Primoff was also visible during the 1998 election, strongly backing Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier for the Board of County Commissioners. Both property-rights supporters won.

His wife, Sue, is also active in county government. She sits on the county's ethics commission.

Slow-growth advocates, often at odds with Primoff, credit his success to being at the right place at the right time.

"He came into the county and really won over the empathy of the farmer," said Carolyn Fairbank, a South Carroll growth-control activist. "He came in as a white knight on a white steed."

A wedge

But critics say his boisterous, outspoken manner has driven a wedge between slow-growth and property-rights groups, lowering the debate over growth from a civil discussion of the county's future to a bitter street fight of personalities and egos.

"We haven't been able to have a good discussion or debate on ways to resolve these issues. Everything has been polarized," said Neil Ridgely, former Hampstead town manager and slow-growth advocate. "I have to credit their organization for 99 percent of that."

Primoff shrugs off such comments as the opinions of a bitter minority of residents who disagree with property rights.

"There are a few people who are really upset I moved to Carroll County. They had a real thing going before I got here. They didn't want any more farmers building any more houses. They were doing quite well before I got involved," he said.

Early struggles

Born in Washington, where his father was a petroleum expert for the federal government, Primoff says he never planned to get involved in political causes. He struggled through school, attending college briefly.

"I couldn't finish college because I couldn't read fast enough," he said. He says he reads about as quickly as a typical fourth-grader.

Whatever he lacked in verbal skills, Primoff made up for in a passion to calculate numbers. He went on to become an accountant and later started selling real estaate. In the 1960s, as a young real estate agent, he sold 30 homes his first month on the job and regularly worked seven days a week. Within two years, he started a real estate company.

Health problems almost ended his career, however. When he was 26, Primoff, who weighed 388 pounds, was told he would not live past 40. An intestinal bypass and a change in diet have improved his health.

In the 1980s, Primoff switched from real estate to commercial lending. He operates his company, U.S. Investments Corp., mainly out of his South Carroll home. He receives so many calls -- about 70 a day -- that his parrot mimics the sound of the phone ringing.

"I'm usually up at 5 a.m. and fall asleep watching Jay Leno," he

said.

Despite his financial success, Primoff says he remains a fan of simple pleasures. He prefers fast food to meals at five-star restaurants. When an employee at the Wendy's in Eldersburg tested positive for hepatitis A, forcing more than 2,000 people to seek inoculations, Primoff wasn't scared away. Instead, he returned to the restaurant daily, often asking friends to join him.

"I didn't want it to close," he said.

Visitors to Primoff's home off Route 97 in South Carroll are greeted by a brick-and-iron gate and a video monitor. His two-story Colonial house sits at the end of a long driveway that crosses a 1,785-foot airstrip. Primoff's Cessna is tied down just outside his front door. Primoff owns 211 acres of forest, streams and farmland, most of it leased to farmers.

He bought the land in 1989, after fleeing Howard County. His neighborhood, Wellington Estates, was ruined after a high-density townhouse development was built next to his home, he said.

But for all of his property, Primoff is a bit distant from it. He can't name the kind of apples he grows in his orchard. He owns a garage crowded with farm equipment and tools that he rarely uses. If he has time to do carpentry, he

carves oversized wooden gavels.

"I never purported to be a farmer," he said.

Driving down Obrecht Road on a recent morning, Primoff sputtered along in an aging Jeep, pointing out the borders of his property. Behind him, a man driving a maroon pickup banged on his horn as if he were tapping out Morse code.

Traffic congestion in South Carroll was one of the main complaints of the Rash brothers. The brothers said that new residents have clogged the roads, making it impossible to operate a large-scale farming operation. Moving equipment from field to field became a battle with commuters.

"See why you can't bring a tractor on the road?" Primoff asked, glaring into his rearview mirror. "And I'm doing 35 in a 25 mph zone. See what farmers put up with?" Primoff's car did not speed up -- only his speech did.

"They drive like it's the Indy 500, and the irony is I'm doing the speed limit," he said, as the pickup driver gunned his engine and sped past him. "This is an everyday occurrence for farmers."

Pub Date: 10/12/99

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